There are two big facts when it comes to raising the federal minimum wage: $7.25 an hour works for nobody in 2018, and $15 an hour doesn't work for everybody. The goal is how to find a happy medium for workers in the Trump era, and increasingly that's looking more and more like sector-wide labor boards like they have in Europe, in particular, Germany.
The Center for American Progress (CAP), one of DC’s most influential liberal think tanks with deep ties to the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton campaign, has just proposed a big idea for raising Americans’ wages.
A new paper by CAP’s David Madland calls for the creation of national wage boards, tasked with setting minimum wage and benefit standards for specific industries. Fast food companies, say, would send representatives to meet with union officials and other worker representatives, and hammer out a deal that ensures workers get a fair shake. Same goes for nurses, or retail workers, or home health aides, or accountants.
“Bargaining panels would have 11 members—five representing employers, five representing workers and one representing the government,” Madland explains. “The government representative would be the U.S. secretary of labor or their delegate. Employers would choose employer representatives through the employers’ industry associations.” Employees would be represented by unions, or other worker representatives. The secretary of labor would create separate boards for different industries and occupations, and work with unions and other worker groups to enforce the wage rules once they’re adopted.
This may seem like an extreme idea, an unprecedented government and union intrusion into the free market. But it reflects a model already gaining steam in some liberal states (like New York and California), and which owes a lot to policies in Europe. It’s the latest sign that pro-labor voices in America are looking to counterparts in France, Germany, and elsewhere across the Atlantic for signs of how to revive the labor movement and get the working class’s wages rising again.
And while ideas like wage boards and giving workers spots on corporate boards may seem pie-in-the-sky today, they could easily become part of the next Democratic president’s agenda, or become law in left-leaning states even before 2020.
Labor unions in America today are in crisis. In the mid-1950s, a third of Americans belonged to a labor union. Now, only 10.7 percent do, including a minuscule 6.4 percent of private-sector workers. The decline of union membership explains as much as a third of the increase in inequality in the US, has caused voter turnout among low-income workers to crater, and has weakened labor’s ability to check corporate influence in Washington, DC, and state capitals.
The future for traditional unions looks so bleak that a growing number of labor scholars and activists are coming to the conclusion that the US model, which relies on individual workers in individual workplaces getting together and organizing on their own, is dead and can’t be revived. What’s needed, they argue, is a more national or industry-wide approach to supplement or replace the old model of individual workplace-level organizing.
“In 2016, we had the most pro-labor president since the 1960s, the most pro-labor secretary of labor since [FDR’s Secretary] Frances Perkins, an economy with shrinking unemployment and rising wages — and yet we lost a quarter-million union members in the United States,” says David Rolf, president of SEIU 775, a local union representing home care workers in Washington and Montana. “We need to be trying everything.”
Yeah, it's an admission that the union shop model is broken and dead. But it's not working, either. A ruling blowing a hole in public employee unions is due from the Supreme Court by the end of June. Something has to replace the existing model, or organized labor in America is done.